Arts & Culture

Leonard Nimoy on the Jewish Story Behind the Vulcan Salute

“I saw them with their hands stuck out from beneath the tallit… I had no idea what was going on, but the sound of it and the look of it was magical.” Read More

By / February 25, 2014

It’s no secret that Star Trek’s ‘Vulcan Salute’ comes from the Jewish priestly blessing performed in synagogue on certain holidays (or, if you’re in Israel, every day). Leonard Nimoy (AKA Spock) introduced the greeting to the show himself based on what he’d seen in shul as a small child, and wrote about it in his 1975 autobiography I Am Not Spock.

But here’s something new! The National Yiddish Book Center’s oral history project recently released an extended interview with Nimoy, in which he memorably mimics the duchening and describes seeing the hand gesture for the first time:

“So I’m with my father, my grandfather, and my brother, sitting in the bench seats—women were upstairs. Five or six guys get up on the bimah, the stage, facing the congregation. They get their tallits over their heads, and they start this chanting… And my father said to me, ‘don’t look’. So everyone’s got their eyes covered with their hands or their tallit down over their faces… And I hear this strange sound coming from them. They’re not singers, they were shouters. And dissonant… It was all discordant… it was chilling.

I thought, ‘something major is happening here.’ So I peeked. And I saw them with their hands stuck out from beneath the tallit like this… Wow. Something really got hold of me. I had no idea what was going on, but the sound of it and the look of it was magical.”

There’s an equally delightful segment in which he recites the ‘To Be Or Not To Be’ soliloquy from Hamlet in Yiddish, and talks about growing up in a Yiddish-speaking family in Boston’s West End. (Links to the full interview and selected shorts are here.)

Earlier this month, Nimoy announced that he was suffering from chronic lung disease, and turned to Twitter to urge smokers to quit. May he live long and prosper.